Death, the endless ways to die, and the anxiety that comes with overthinking it fuels the actions of the adult characters in White Noise, Noah Baumbach’s faithful adaptation of Don Delillo’s cult novel published in 1985.
The film is set in the 1980s – a time when processed food and plastics littered every household in America and the price of mass consumerism and convenience was pushing the world closer to the brink of environmental collapse. Adam Driver stars as Jack, an eminent middle-aged professor in Hitler studies and Nazism alongside Greta Gerwig, playing his wife Babbette who is popping pills and struggling with her memory.
Blending satire, Hollywood disaster movie and thriller, Baumbach directs this potent mix of existential dread and collective trauma in a way that simulates the distinct sense that we are, at all times, dangling off a high precipice and facing off the apocalypse. Jack and Babbette spend so much time navel-gazing and worrying about catastrophe that when an actual cataclysmic airborne toxic event occurs in their neighbourhood, they hesitate to act, putting themselves and their four children in danger. It’s all hilariously handled, with Baumbach’s flair for dryly bizarre human interactions shining in the meticulously directed family scenes whether they are bickering over breakfast, wildly fleeing in panic or navigating a river creek with awkward glee.
Visually, Baumbach is firing on all cylinders, toying with different genres in highly ambitious ways. A dark nightmare sequence is suffused with pervading, hold-your-breath terror and the action set pieces mischievously nod to Spielberg. The brightly fluorescent-lit and creatively arranged supermarket scenes emphasise the turmoil the human race is marching towards with wide-open eyes in spite of all types of wonderful distraction.
The thriller elements in the final third may not possess the same elegance but for the most part, White Noise is a dazzling and gloriously surreal cinematic experience, packed with acute tension, memorable performances and pitch-black humour.
White Noise was seen and reviewed at the BFI London Film Festival. Is in select UK cinemas from December 2 and globally on Netflix December 30